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Photo of polymer Matrix Composite Materials Experiment, Space Shuttle, 1990

Composite materials and laminates

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by Chris Woodford. Last updated: June 8, 2018.

One plus one equals three is just the kind of math that makes sense if you're a materials scientist—especially one who works with composites (the short name for composite materials). Put two useful materials together in a composite and what you get is a third, somewhat different material that's superior in some crucial way (maybe stronger or better at handling heat) than either of the original components: it's more, in other words, than the sum of its parts.

Composites might sound a little bit "techy" and unfamiliar, but they're extremely common in the world around us. Bats for ball sports (tennis rackets, golf clubs, and hockey sticks) are often made from them. Cars, planes, and boats have long been made from composites such as fiberglass, because they're lighter than metals but often just as strong. And if you think composites sound super-modern, think again: concrete, wood, and bone are all composite materials. Laminates are composites in which layers of different materials are bonded together with adhesive, to give added strength, durability, or some other benefit.

Photo: Testing composite materials onboard Space Shuttle Mission STS-32, 1990. Picture courtesy NASA JSC Digital Image Collection.

What are composites?

A composite is made by combining two or more other materials so they improve one another but keep distinct and separate identities in the final product. So a composite isn't a compound (where atoms or molecules bind together chemically to make something quite different), a mixture (where one material is blended into another), or a solution (where something like salt dissolves in water and effectively disappears). A composite is something like concrete, where stones of various sizes are dotted in between cement. Reinforced concrete is also a composite made from steel reinforcing bars placed inside wet concrete—which makes it, in effect, a composite of a composite. Fiberglass is a composite of tiny glass shards glued inside plastic. In concrete, reinforced concrete, and fiberglass, the original ingredients are still easy to spot in the final material. So in concrete, you can clearly see the stones in the cement—they don't disappear or dissolve.

A model of a composite made from plastic fastener and match sticks

Photo: A simple model of a composite. I've used layers of sticky plastic fastener (Blu-Tack) as the matrix and matchsticks as the fibers, so this is (loosely speaking) a kind of polymer matrix composite. It would be easy to turn this into a science fair experiment: build yourself a large sample of composite like this and then compare its properties to those of the materials from which you've made it.

Why do we need composites?

In at least one important way, a composite must be better than the materials from which it's made—otherwise there's no point to it. Considering concrete again, it's very strong if you use it in vertical beams to take the weight of a building or a structure pushing down—in other words, if you use it squashed (in compression). But it's quite weak and tends to bow and then snap if you use it horizontally, where it's stretched (in tension). That's obviously going to be a major problem in a building that has lots of horizontal beams. A great solution is to pour wet concrete around tight steel bars (called rebars) so that it sets into a composite material called reinforced concrete. The steel pulls on the concrete and stops it snapping when it's in tension, while the concrete protects the steel from rust and decay. What we end up with is a composite material that works well in both tension and compression.

Added strength is the most common reason for making a composite, but it's not the only one. Sometimes, we're looking to make a material better in a different way. For example, we might need an airplane part with better fatigue resistance than we'd get from a metal, so it doesn't snap (like a paperclip) when it's repeatedly stressed and strained in flight. Or we might need an engine part that can survive at higher temperatures than an ordinary ceramic. Perhaps we need a plastic that's stiff and strong but still lightweight, or one that can carry heat and electricity better than ordinary plastic (something with improved thermal and electrical conductivity, in other words). Composites can help us in all these situations.

A B2 stealth plane photographed from above

Photo: The B2 stealth jet planes use clever design and composite materials to evade radar detection. Picture by Lance Cheung courtesy of US Air Force.

How are composites made?

Composites are generally made of two main materials (though there may be other additives as well): there's a "background" material called a matrix (or matrix phase) and, to this, we add a transforming material called the reinforcement (or reinforcing phase). Although we tend to think of the reinforcement as being made up of fibers (as in fiberglass), that's not always the case. In reinforced concrete, the "fibers" are large-scale, twisted steel rods; in fiberglass, they're tiny whiskers of glass. Sometimes the reinforcement is made of granules, particulates, or whiskers, but it can also be made of folded textiles.

The way the particles of reinforcement are arranged in the matrix determines whether a composite has the same mechanical properties in every direction (isotropic) or different properties in different directions (anisotropic). Fibers all pointing the same way will make a composite anisotropic: it will be stronger in one direction than another (exactly what we see in wood). On the other hand, particulates, whiskers, or fibers randomly oriented in a composite will tend to make it equally strong in all directions.

Whatever form it takes, the reinforcement's job is to withstand forces placed on the material (adding strength or helping to stop cracks and fatigue), while the job of the matrix is bind the reinforcement tightly in place (so it doesn't weaken) and protect it (from heat, water, and other environmental damage).

Types of composites

Natural composites

When we talk about composites, we often mean strong, lightweight, ultra-modern materials carefully engineered for specific applications in things like space rockets and jet planes—but looking at things that way makes it all too easy to forget natural composite materials, which have been around forever. Wood is a composite made from cellulose fibers (the reinforcement) growing inside lignin (a matrix made of organic, carbon-based polymers). Bone is another age-old composite in which collagen fibers reinforce a matrix of hydroxyapatite (a crystalline mineral based on calcium). And even human-made composites aren't necessarily hi-tech and modern. Concrete and brick (made from mud or clay reinforced with straw) are two examples of composites invented by humans that have been in widespread use for thousands of years.

Classic composites

The first modern composite material was fiberglass (originally spelled "fibreglas" and now generally referred to as glass-fiber reinforced plastic, GRFP, or GRP), which dates from the 1930s. These days, GRP typically comes in the form of tapes that can be pasted onto the surface of a mold. The plastic backing tape is the matrix holds the glass fibers in place, but it's the fibers that provide much of the material's strength. While plastic (by definition) is relatively soft and flexible, glass is strong but brittle. Put the two together and you have a strong, durable material suitable for things like car or boat bodies, lighter than the metals or alloys you might otherwise use and not prone to rusting. Carbon-fiber reinforced plastic (CRFP or CRP) is similar to GRP but uses carbon fibers instead of glass ones.

Smart cars are made from composite materials

Photo: Smart cars are lightweight, composite cars. A steel safety shell holds together a variety of different parts and panels mostly made of plastics, including polypropylene (PP), polyvinyl butyral (PVB), polycarbonate (PC), and polyethylene terephthalate (PET). As on most cars, the "rubber" tires are actually composites made from rubber and numerous other materials, such as silica.

Modern composites

Today's advanced composites are based on either metal, plastic (polymer), or ceramic. That gives us the three main types of modern composite materials: metal matrix composites (MMC), polymer matrix composites (PMC), and ceramic matrix composites (CMC).

Metal matrix composites (MMC)

These have a matrix made from a lightweight metal such as an aluminum or magnesium alloy, reinforced with either ceramic or carbon fibers. Examples include aluminum reinforced with silicon carbide, and an alloy of copper and nickel reinforced with graphene (a type of carbon), which makes the metals several hundred times stronger than they'd be on their own. MMCs are strong, stiff, hard-wearing, rust-resistant, and relatively light, but they tend to be expensive and harder to work. They're popular in aerospace (in things like jet engines ), military applications (steel-boron nitride is used to reinforce tanks), the automobile industry (diesel engine pistons), and cutting tools.

Ceramic matrix composites (CMC)

As their name suggests, these use a ceramic material (such as borosilicate glass) as the background matrix, with carbon or ceramic fibers (such as silicon carbide) adding reinforcement and helping to overcome the key weakness of ordinary ceramics (their brittleness and what's called low "fracture toughness"). Examples include carbon-fiber-reinforced silicon carbide (C/SiC) and silicon carbide-reinforced silicon carbide (SiC/SiC). Originally developed for aerospace and military applications where lightness and high-temperature performance are really important (such as gas-turbine, jet engine exhaust nozzles), CMCs have also found uses in things like automobile brakes and clutches, bearings, heat exchangers, and nuclear reactors. Since CMCs tend to be used for high-temperature applications, polymer fibers and conventional low-melting glass fibers aren't generally used as reinforcements.

Polymer matrix composites (PMC)

Polymer matrix composites (PMC), such as GRP, are different again. While the fibers in CMCs make them tougher and less brittle, in PMCs the ceramic or carbon fibers add strength and stiffness to the background plastic. As we've just seen, lightness, stiffness, strength, and corrosion resistance make PMCs such as fiberglass excellent materials for car, boat, and plane parts. They're also widely used in sports goods (such as tennis rackets, golf clubs, snowboards, and skis).

Future composites

A brown nanocomposite powder being poured from a test tube in a laboratory

Photo: Nanocomposite: A typical This brown powder, N-CAS (nanocomposite absorbent solvent), is an example of a PMC (polymer matrix composite) and it's designed to remove poisonous arsenic from drinking water. It's made by embedding nanoparticles of metal oxide, which absorb the arsenic, in a polymer matrix. Picture courtesy of Idaho National Laboratory and US Department of Energy.

A lot of current research is focused on improving composites by using fibers roughly 1000 times smaller, which pack an awful lot more punch. These so-called nanocomposites are an example of nanotechnology, using carbon nanotubes or nanoparticles as the reinforcement. They're likely to prove both cheaper and to have better mechanical and electrical properties than traditional composites. Colt Hockey, for example, is now advertising a carbon-fiber hockey stick coated with nickel-cobalt nanocomposite that claims to be "2.8 times stronger and 20% more flexible than steel."

Laminates

A poster being laminated in a heat treating machine.

Photo: Laminating a paper poster in a heat-treating machine. Photo by Michael Winter courtesy of US Navy.

Having read all about composites, you might have come to the conclusion that they're not the kind of materials ordinary people are likely to come across very often—but you'd be wrong! Have you ever fastened sticky-backed plastic onto a book to protect the cover? Or glued cardboard to paper to make it stronger? Perhaps you've coated a poster you've printed on your computer with plastic to make it weatherproof? If you've done any of these things, you've made yourself a laminate: a particular kind of composite material formed by bonding together layers of two or more other materials with adhesives.

What are laminates?

You'll find your dictionary defines a lamina as a thin sheet or plate of material: a layer, in other words. Fix two or more sheets of material together and you get a laminate, which is essentially just a material made up of layers. Since the layers are usually different materials, laminates are examples of composites, though the materials aren't integrated together in the same way as with other (matrix) composites. It's also important to remember that a laminate isn't simply several layers of materials: the materials have to be permanently bonded together with something like adhesive, so they behave as one material, not several. You can think of the adhesive (or adhesives—because there might be more than one) as an additional material in a laminate.

Why would you want to make a laminate? Generally, because a material you'd normally use by itself (say paper, wood, or glass) isn't strong or durable enough to survive by itself. Paper isn't waterproof, for example, while plastic is relatively hard to print on. But what if you print on the paper then coat it with plastic? The laminated composite material you've made gives you the best of both worlds.

What are laminates used for?

Laminates tend to be based on four main materials: wood, glass, fabric, and paper.

Wood

Laminated floors are very popular because they're really hard wearing. Unlike a traditional hard wood floor, a laminate floor is typically made of four layers. The top might be something like a thin layer of transparent plastic designed to resist stains and scratches. Underneath that, there's a thin layer of patterned wood (or even paper printed with a wood pattern) that gives the floor its attractive appearance. The next layer is the core: the bulk of the material, made from low-grade fiberboard. Finally, on the base, there's a thin layer of hard, moisture-proof board. Many low-cost furniture products that resemble solid wood are actually laminates made of lower-grade wood products (known as chipboard or particle board) with a thin coating of veneer, plastic, or even paper. The main drawback of laminated floors is that they can split apart and warp if they get wet.

Glass

Car windshields and bulletproof glass are actually very heavy laminates made from several layers of glass and plastic. The outer layers of glass are weatherproof and scratchproof, while the inner plastic layers provide strength and a small amount of flexibility to stop the glass from shattering. You can read more in our main article about bulletproof glass. As we've already seen, glass is also laminated with plastic to make composites such as GRP (Glass Reinforced Plastic).

USAF public domain photo of bulletproof glass

Photo: Bulletproof glass is an energy-absorbing sandwich of glass and plastic. You can think of it as a composite (because it's a combination of materials) or a laminate (because it involves sheets of material bonded together). Picture courtesy of US Air Force.

Fabric

Most shoes and many outdoor clothes are made from laminated materials. A typical raincoat usually has a waterproof membrane between a hard-wearing outer layer and a soft, comfortable inner layer. Sometimes the membrane is directly bonded to the inner and outer layers to make a very tough and durable piece of clothing; this is known as a 3-layer laminate. If the membrane is bonded to the outer fabric with no inner lining, that's called a 2.5 layer laminate. Waterproof clothes made this way tend to be more "breathable" than 3-layer laminates since moisture can escape more easily.

A laminated 2.5 later breathable nylon coat.

Photo: Looking inside a laminated 2.5-layer waterproof nylon jacket. It looks like a single layer of nylon, but it's actually two layers laminated together. You can tell that because the inner and outer surfaces look totally different. The ultra-waterproof black outer layer is made of rip-stop nylon. The inner white surface is an extra coating that improves air circulation and breathability.

Paper

Many people own small laminating machines that coat pieces of paper, card, or photographs in a thin but tough layer of durable plastic. You simply buy a packet of plastic "pouches", insert your paper item inside, and run this "sandwich" through the machine. It heats or glues the plastic and presses it firmly together to make a weatherproof and durable coating. Identification (ID) cards and credit cards are also laminated with clear plastic so they can survive several years of use.

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Woodford, Chris. (2006/2017) Composites and laminates. Retrieved from https://www.explainthatstuff.com/composites.html. [Accessed (Insert date here)]

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